Morality in Mourning: What to Do When a Predator Priest or Bishop Dies

by | Dec 3, 2023 | Catholic Church

Predator Priest Dies Horowitz Law

I think we can all agree that showing respect for the dead is a necessary mark of empathy and, well, respectful. However, showing compassion for the living takes precedence. Believe me, it’s possible and far more preferable to master the delicate dance between both. This moral conundrum is especially true when the deceased is known to have wronged others, leaving a trail of deep wounds that continue to bleed in the lives of the living.

In the Catholic world, it’s devastating to witness how pervasive child sex crimes and cover-ups by clergy members have become. This horror movie of a scenario – where a wrongdoer dies while the victims continue their battle with trauma – seems to play out almost weekly. Now, the plot could go in two directions. One invokes and deepens an already profound suffering. The other offers comfort and relief to those already swallowed by unspeakable pain. Tragically, it seems the scripts that the majority of Catholic officials choose to enact are usually written in the wrong direction. Just to drive my point home, let’s discuss a few examples:

When Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy Passed Away

When Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy passed away, Milwaukee Bishop Richard Sklba eulogized him glowingly in an official church publication. After all, Fr. Murphy committed a quarter of a century to St. John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin. “His entire priesthood was devoted to the deaf community. He loved St. John’s and its community very much, taking great care of the youngsters and staff,” Bishop Sklba wrote.

Sounds like a Cinderella story, right? But let’s pop that bubble of illusion. According to a plethora of sources, including church records, no less, Fr. Murphy was a carefree tourist in the realm of monstrosity, sexually abusing more than 200 innocent kids. He even had the gall to hand in his resignation at St. John’s after multiple abuse reports were stacked against him.

Now, to be fair to Bishop Sklba, as hard as it is when the chips are down, he didn’t brush Fr. Murphy’s horrific crimes under the carpet. The very least he could do and did was acknowledge his behavior by saying, “Not everything he did was good. I say that not to offend or hurt but because it’s true. Painful accusations were made. They surfaced again in recent years, with increased bitterness: I don’t know the whole story, but I do know that the amount of damage became clear.”

If you’re left scratching your head, you’re not alone. Clearly, what the bishop glossed over was whether he was referring to the damage Fr. Murphy faced or the more significant harm to his victims.

Farewell to Fr. George Clements

Picture this: a prominent civil rights activist, founder of a now-nationwide non-profit, marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. Then add to it an astonishing first – the first priest in the US to adopt a child. That’s four sons in total. It’s no surprise that when Fr. George Clements passed away in 2019, family, friends, and church members swarmed two of the Chicago parishes (Holy Angels Catholic Church and St. Sabina Church) to bid him adieu.

However, and here’s where the plot twists, just before his demise, he had been benched by Cardinal Blase Cupich for alleged child sex crimes. Later, to add insult to injury, Cupich coughed up $800,000 to one of Fr. Clement’s victims. Despite this, Cupich staunchly refuses to label the cleric as a ‘credibly accused’ abuser.

When he died, the official newspaper of the Chicago Archdiocese made no mention of the abuse allegations. Catholic News World whipped up a 22-paragraph eulogy so radiant you’d have mistaken him for a saint. It was only near the end, in the 18th paragraph, that they even dared to brush over the abuse charges, casually dismissing them as ‘misconduct.’

The Funeral Mass for Fr. David Jaeger

Fr. David Jaeger‘s funeral mass ceremony was held at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill in Seattle, surrounded by 20 priests reportedly concelebrating and eight nuns as Eucharistic ministers. The problem is that Fr. Jaeger had confessed to sexually exploiting up to 10 boys.

Drawing from a national news source, critics argued that:

  1. The funeral violated the spirit of current archdiocesan policies and the US bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which was birthed in the wake of the national clergy sex abuse scandal
  2. The nature of the funeral could discourage potential clergy sex abuse victims from speaking out, as it appeared to either gloss over or flagrantly ignore an offender’s acts of abuse
  3. The event potentially revictimized those who had already been abused
  4. The Seattle Times obituary, eulogy, and funeral program portrayed Fr. Jaeger’s laicization as being motivated by his desire to spend time with his longtime partner, without any nods towards his sexual abuse of boys.

An Unusual Funeral for Fr. Gerald Robinson

Okay, this next example is a doozy. In Toledo, Fr. Gerald Robinson was accused of abuse but also—hold onto your hats, folks—convicted of murder. But here’s the kicker: when he passed away in 2014, a local newspaper quoted a top diocesan official stating that Fr. Robinson would receive “the usual funeral for a priest.”

That official, Fr. Charles Ritter, had the audacity to say, “Whether in the eyes of God, Father Robinson was or was not guilty of this crime, I do not know.” (The Blade article thankfully quoted a parishioner who said, “I think it’s very unfair to the family of the woman he murdered. I wish he would’ve said I’m sorry and he did it. Then I would be fine if they gave him a priest’s funeral.”)

Lingering Questions

This onion, however foul-smelling, just leaves us with layers and layers of questions:

  • Bishops don’t swing their incense or type out praising obituaries for every priest who crosses over to the other side. So, what made the Milwaukee bishop decide to pen a glowing piece for a serial child molester?
  • What went through those nuns’ and priests’ minds at Fr. Jaeger’s funeral when they watched his crimes be ignored or diminished?
  • How does a Toledo church official sleep at night, claiming to be unsure of a priest’s guilt, even when a conviction had been reached in court?

Let me break it down for all of us: this isn’t some complicated algorithm that requires the brains of Neil Armstrong to decipher. Bishops should always bear in mind that there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING they can say or do about a deceased child molester that can hurt that person. However, they can do things for or say things about a deceased child molester that CAN further traumatize the victims.

The Sticky Situation of Predatory Bishops

At the end of the day, this problem isn’t just about predatory priests. You know it’s a red flag when the flames of this issue touch even the bishops’ robes. After all, they’re looked upon as mentors, spiritual giants, and symbols of righteousness.

Take the case of the former Albany bishop, Howard Hubbard. He’s been accused by at least seven men in various court files of molestation, most of which reportedly took place during their innocent, tender years. According to an Albany area newspaper, “In 2021, Hubbard admitted to covering up sexual abuse in the church. Clergy members accused of child sexual abuse were sent to treatment programs and reinstated within different ministries, instead of surrendering to law enforcement, the retired bishop acknowledged.”

Try not to choke on your coffee when you read this next example:

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who was notorious for years of sweeping clergy sex crimes under the carpet when he passed away in Rome, was buried in no less a place than St. Peter’s Basilica — a holy shrine of Catholicism! The Boston Herald reported that “Pope Francis will attend,” which naturally set off an outrage among survivors of clergy sex abuse who were vehement that the shamed cleric doesn’t deserve such honor.

Is it really too much to ask the US Catholic hierarchy to prioritize the needs and emotions of living victims, witnesses, whistleblowers, and parishioners, for once, over the sentiments and needs of predators’ families? As I wrap this up, I can only sigh and say, only time will tell… only time will tell.

Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, contact us today at 888-283-9922 or [email protected] to discuss your options today. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.